September 17, 2013
The Honorable Kirsten Gillibrand
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510
On behalf of the following nonprofit organizations from the Patient, Consumer, and Public Health coalition, we urge you to support Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) Military Justice Improvement Act (S. 967) when it is offered as an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.
Sexual assault is a public health issue that has important implications for our military and our veterans. The Department of Defense estimates that 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact occurred in the military in 2012. In addition to the emotional trauma and long-term mental health damage that often results from rape and sexual assault, these assaults cause harm to everyone involved while they are trying to effectively perform their military responsibilities.
The Military Justice Improvement Act would reform the military justice system, removing from the chain of command the decision to prosecute serious crimes that are punishable by confinement for more than one year. Instead, the decision about whether a case will go to court-martial would be in the hands of independent high-ranking prosecutors. Experienced prosecutors are better qualified to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial than are commanding officers.
Under the current system, individuals who were sexually assaulted have an incentive to not report what happened, for fear of the impact on how they are treated on a daily basis, as well as on their military careers. In FY12, only 11 percent of the estimated cases of unwanted sexual contact were reported. Under-reporting will continue because 62% of women who did report experienced some form of retaliation. Until survivors of sexual assault have confidence that they will be treated fairly, the incentive will be to be quiet, rather than to truthfully report what happened to oneself or to others.
The recent Article 32 hearing regarding the reported rape of a naval midshipman by three classmates, which featured the taunting and character assassination of the woman, makes it all the more obvious that the military is incapable of policing itself. The fact that this occurred during a time of media and Congressional scrutiny raises questions about how much worse the military justice system regarding sexual assault must be when nobody is looking.
Military leaders have repeatedly urged Congress to give them time to fix these problems. This is no longer an acceptable option. Senator Gillibrand’s bill proposes changes that are structural and substantial, rather than the empty rhetoric of the last two decades.
In the military, trust and respect is key to survival. Senator Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act is essential to make that a reality for all of the 2.9 million active duty and reserve personnel in the U.S. Armed Services. The goal is that all 2.9 million be able to serve with dignity and pride, without fear of sexual assault.
Dr. Diana Zuckerman
National Research Center for Women & Families
Dr. Susan Wood
Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health
Our Bodies Ourselves